Why Can't It Be Mine?
Why Can't It Be Mine?
  • Kim Jang Yunsun
  • 승인 2023.06.02 09:51
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Noonsong recently heard the news of the death of Lee Woo-young, who created the cartoon Black Rubber Shoes. He is known to have been struggling for a long time due to a legal dispute over the copyright of his cartoon. Noonsong was saddened by his death because she remembered enjoying the animation based on this comic book as a child. On the basis of this case, she discovered that the problem of unfair copyright contracts within the culture and arts world is serious.


The time when our right will be protected

The public's concern about the working environment of cultural and artistic workers has persisted over time. The poor environment was revealed through the death of Choi Ko-eun, the director and scriptwriter of the short film <Passionate Sonata>, on January 29, 2011. The author was found to have died after suffering from hardships of life that were caused by an extremely small income. In this respect, the government introduced the Artist Welfare Act, a statute that protects the status and rights of artists. This statute guarantees the right of all artists not to be forced into unfair contracts through the threat of disadvantage. Obligating to contract on an equal footing with each other, it reduces the risk of entering an unfair contract. However, social concerns have not diminished after the bill was enacted. The death of producer Lee Han-bit, a supporting actor in tvN's drama <Drinking Solo>, showed the problems with the working environment of cultural artists. He took his own life due to the poor environment of the broadcasting industry. As such incidents continued afterwards, the government introduced the Artist Employment Insurance System in 2020 to improve the environment for artists. It considers the lives of artists whose income is not stable by guaranteeing unemployment benefits. There are provisions in the bill for minimum profit guarantees, such as the requirement to receive unemployment benefits when signing a contract. It seems that the government has been trying to guarantee the artist's rights and improve the working environment.
Despite these efforts, the problem has not been solved easily. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), a total of 1,474 unfair acts were filed with the complaint center for artists, which operated for the nine years up to when the Act on the Guarantee of Artist Status and Rights took effect in September 2022. Among them, 1,137 cases of refusal, delay, and restriction of profit distribution accounted for 77.1%, followed by unfair contract coercion at 12.6%, and obstruction, instruction, and interference of art creation activities at 8.3%. Even with the enforcement of the Artist Rights Guarantee Act, a total of 75 cases have been filed up to March this year, of which 42 were about rejection, delay, and restriction from the distribution of profits and 14 concerning unfair contract coercion.1) The artists constantly experience problems even after the introduction of the acts. The problems can be seen in the aspect of artists' income such as the 2022 profit-sharing conflict between Chuu, a former member of the girl group Loona and her agency Block Berry Creative. The two parties signed a contract to divide the profits 30-70 and the costs 50-50. The contract allows the agency to take more than twice the profits compared to her, but both pay the same amount of activity expenses. The more she works, the more debt she incurs. Through this, there may be situations in which the Artist Welfare Act, which requires the obligation at the time of the contract, is not applied. As such, new precautions against the environment that has not changed for a long time are needed.



The cause of infringing artists' rights

The artist's working environment is usually caused by contractual problems. The Korea Creative Content Agency said 58.9 percent of artists had experienced unfair contracts, according to the 2022 Webtoon Writers Survey, which analyzed the status of the domestic webtoon industry. According to the survey, 40.8 percent had experienced unilateral contracts which were more favorable to production companies and platforms, followed by 32.1 percent whose request for modification of the contract before signing was refused.2) The survey showed that unfair contracts still exist in the webtoon industry and act as a factor that makes it difficult for webtoon industry workers to work. Such contracts include contracts that do not guarantee creative rights. About these unfair contracts, choreographer Back Koo-young said "When signing a contract with an entertainment company, there is a clause that attributes rights to secondary works to entertainment. I have no choice but to sign with bitterness because I have to get the choreography fee first."3) There is a problem with signing an unfair contract because immediate income cannot be foregone for sustaining a livelihood. Based on these cases, such unfair contracts are interfering with the normal professional life of creatives.
One of the representative types of unfair contracts is a sales contract. The company pays a certain amount to the creator, and then all rights to copyright go to the company, not the creator. As a result, it allows the creator to be guaranteed a minimum income even when the sales of the work are low. However, the problem is that limited money is given to the creator even in the event of a large profit. One such case is the 2020 controversy of the author Baek Hee-na of the popular picture book Cloud Bread. The author succeeded in selling about 400,000 copies of the book alone after signing a sales contract with the publisher, but the amount returned to her was only 18.5 million won. Since she was not guaranteed copyright due to the unfair contract, she did not receive the secondary creative profits. She said, "Even though Cloud Bread held various exhibitions and performances against my will, I had no choice but to watch like a spectator. I experienced trauma and depression because it was painful to watch it."4) Creators who sign such a contract have their all-unique rights infringed upon as specified in the Copyright Act. The prevalence of unfair contracts removes the ability of creators to stand equally.
To prevent these problems, the government has created standard contract forms. A standard contract is designated by the government for uniformity of content and conditions according to a specific transaction contract. However, those standard contract forms have not been used properly. In 2021, according to a survey of artists conducted by the MCST, 48.7 percent of "written contracts" and 6.1 percent of "verbal contracts" were signed. In addition, 66% of written contract cases are said to have been made without referring to the principles of standard contract form specified by the government.5) It shows that less than 30% of the total number of participants in the survey signed standard contracts set by the government. This situation can arise from the ambiguousness of the statutes of the standard contract form. One example of the problem with the standard contract of related provisions is the recent settlement issue between singer Lee Seung-ki and his agency Hook Entertainment. In the standard contract of popular culture artists, there is a clause that says, 'A singer may request a planner that is an affiliated company to view and copy materials or documents concluded at that time of the contract, and it is the principle that companies answer that request.' However, since these provisions were not mandatory regulations, they were abused by the agency. Lee Nam-kyung, secretary-general of the Korea Management Association said, "The phrase 'if requested by popular culture artists' has been added to the revision. These things eventually act like another regulation, causing big and small problems."6) It means that if the meaning or nuance of the provisions of the standard contract form is unclear, it can cause various problems. It seems that the government's appropriate measures to prevent unfair contracts are needed.




Defending the honor of artists

Currently, the MCST has announced plans to devise legal and institutional supplementary measures to strengthen the rights and interests of creators. They said they will review the standard contract in the field of cartoons and webtoons. They also will make it mandatory to write contracts covering the production of secondary works and assignment agreement through the new standard contracts in the field of comics. This is to prevent the situation in which another person uses the secondary work without permission by specifying the creator of the secondary work in the standard contract. Along with those plans, on February 27, the government passed a revision to the Act on the Promotion of Cartoons which encourages the use of standard contracts in the cartoon sector. This considers the current situation in which standard contracts are not mandatory. The revision calls for cartoon creators to receive preferential financial support if they use standard contracts. In addition, the definition of webtoons was newly established by dividing "comics" and "webtoons" which had been mixed without clear standards. This could solve the problem that webtoon workers are not subject to the law because the term webtoon is not included in the standard contract in the cartoon field. Through this, the government has taken measures in consideration of the actual current problems.
Meanwhile, the MCST says artists should be fully aware of their rights specified in the standard contract so that it can be applied in practice. They stressed that raising their awareness of the guarantee of the right is considered a way to reduce unfair contracts. Based on this, the MCST are currently striving to strengthen copyright contract education. They said they plan to expand customized copyright education for creators from 80 to 500 a year and prepare a "key guide for easy-to-know copyright contract cases" to help fair contracts. In order to prevent unfair contracts in advance, they will operate the Cartoon Help Desk, a counseling center for unfair contracts in the cartoon field and will visit in person to conduct consultations for standard contract education. There are also a series of moves to promote related education. In the second half of 2022, the Korea Artist Welfare Foundation held an education session titled "Understanding Contracts for Artists-Standard Contract ZOOM IN!" To establish a fair contract culture in the art world, the foundation has expanded the target from not only artists but also to art businesses and related institutions to prepare customized education for each art field. This seems to be aimed at raising awareness of copyright by requiring artists and workers to undergo copyright education.
However, there are some concerns about the MCST's move. In January, this year, controversy arose over the standard contract draft for the webtoon industry prepared by the government. The creators pointed out that the standard contract did not reflect the voices of those in the field. They said that agreement was excessively emphasized with regards to profit allocation which requires negotiation between companies and artists. If the government does not provide accurate standards and they intervene at a minimum, the process of negotiating the contract will be centered on companies. Regarding this draft, Ha Eun-ah, chairman of the Webtoon Workers' Union, said, "The government needs to encourage research service participation and hold meetings of creators' organizations. Also, they have to set up a wide range of governance including non-face-to-face tables for unorganized workers."7) It is necessary to come up with measures to reduce the damage by reflecting the opinions of various artists. According to the Standard Contract Preparation Act, it is not mandatory to listen to the artists' opinions. This seems to reflect the position of the industry, not the creator. The MCST seems to need to consider measures that allow all creators to control their own work.

A culture and arts worker


In order to protect their rights

The rights of artists in culture and the arts have not been effectively improved for a long time. They are often violated by unfair contracts they have signed to sell their creations. In response, the MCST has made efforts to enact standard contracts in accordance with each field and is now presenting new measures to prevent the constant damage to artists. MCST's efforts will be necessary to take effective measures to ensure that artists have basic rights to their creations.


1) Lee Kang-eun, "Abuse of Power, Unfair Contracts, Unpaid Remuneration... "K Content," Which Is Bruised by Absurdity, [In-Depth Planning-Artist Rights Infringement Is Currently in Progress]", The Segye Times, April 2, 2023

2) Jeon Seung-soo, "[Planning: Copyright] 'Copyright Dispute' viewed as 'Black Rubber Shoes'", Newsnv, April 30, 2023

3) Tak Ji-young, "Lee Jae-Myung Wearing a 'J' Beanie, Met Lia Kim and Said, "We Should Protect the Copyright of the Choreography" ... The Promise About Basic Income of Culture and Artists", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, January 20, 2022

4) Park Seok-Won, "[News Q] What Is the Right of Creation to Be Heard by Writer Baek Hee-Na of Cloud Bread?", YTN News, March 21, 2023

5) See Footnote 1

6) Park Jung-sun, "[Entertainment Slave Contract, Out] Is There a Solution to the Deeply Rooted 'Unfair Practice'", Dailyan, February 9, 2023

7) Kim Seong-hyun, "MCST Should Discuss the Revision of Standard Contracts for Webtoon Writers From the Beginning", ZDNet Korea, January 11, 2023

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